BOOK REVIEW / Inland pilgrims with the author at our side: Woman of the inner sea - Thomas Keneally: Hodder & Stoughton pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
FROM the opening lines, Woman of the Inner Sea is unmistakably the work of an accomplished if inelegant writer. 'Dear bookbuyer,' it begins, continuing a few lines on with the observation that 'all tales have been told and all devices explored, yet here you are, still expecting enchantment against all the evidence'. Nor is this manner confined to the opening. The reader - or 'bookbuyer', as Keneally optimistically insists, ignoring borrowers, thieves and reviewers - is addressed with cloying regularity.

Similarly, the novelist takes disarming pleasure in revealing the devices of his craft: 'There are certain guiding principles of fiction, dear bookbuyer. . .'; 'It is now, dear bookbuyer, nearly three months later. . .' The most infuriating of all these statements claims that 'it is for more than the crass demands of suspense that we withhold a certain amount from our fellow pilgrims'. Yet Keneally almost gets away with even this coquetry.

In the first quarter of the book he establishes the background - a wealthy woman and her children, an adulterous husband, an eastern Australian location. He does this with a certain skill, but spends so much time explaining what he is doing, and why, that the reader he addresses so affectionately is inclined to throw the book across the room in disgust. Once this background is in place, however, and the characters are allowed to reveal themselves rather than be revealed, the book gains considerably.

The central character is Kate. Something appalling has happened to her but, this being the same something that has to be withheld from the fellow pilgrims, we do not actually know what it is. However, it has forced Kate to turn her back on her privileged life on the coast and driven her inland. She finds a town that is apparently indistinguishable from the other towns on her route and goes to stay - later to work - at an indistinguishable pub.

But - as Keneally is at pains to point out - the charm of literature is variety, an ability to find or invent a universe in a grain of sand. Hence, for instance, the regulars in the bar. There is the man who has been everywhere, 'not everywhere in the sense of Melbourne or San Francisco or Edinburgh or Tokyo. Everywhere in the sense of Wilcannia, Dungog, Warricknabeal, Manduramah.' There is the man who knows that 'though he had perhaps six and a half decades' vivid experience to exploit if called on, he would fail to be asked. He would die with all that eager material still in his veins.' These are character sketches of the highest quality, and if Keneally tends to patronise the reader, at least he does not commit the greater sin of patronising his characters.

From this scene onwards, the book starts to weave its proper magic. The plot works to a satisfying end, the Australian landscape is well evoked, and the characters continue to impress. Yet I find it hard to be enthusiastic about Woman of the Inner Sea. Keneally's competence as a storyteller has never been in question. He demonstrated that he could make drama out of documentation with Schindler's Ark, and that he could handle intractable material with Confederates. Woman of the Inner Sea does nothing to threaten that reputation. Story-telling alone is not sufficient, of course: the plot is like a motor which tugs a book along, but there needs to be a cargo to make the journey worthwhile. Keneally provides such a cargo with his insights into Australian society.

My reservations are rooted elsewhere. Reading Woman of the Inner Sea I was struck not only by the frequent addresses to the reader but by the way they come at points when the book is flagging. It is as if, when the writing is going well, Keneally feels no need to jog our attention, grab us by the elbow and say what's going on; conversely, when the writing isn't fully convincing, up pops this voice to say: 'Well, what do you expect? It's only a story, anyway.'

This is the second novel by this writer I have reviewed this year - the first was Chief of Staff, written under the pen-name William Coyle - and both are big, fat, well-researched books. Keneally's output is clearly prodigious. Equally obviously, he is a fine story-teller. For these reasons, he really should not need to bluster.